Insights and ideas from Maggie Taylor, Adobe® Photoshop® user
Digital artistVisit this innovator's website
The dreamlike world of narrative photomontages
Alchemist. Weaver of narrative collages. Image magician. Maggie Taylor and her work defy traditional labels. Taylor began taking classes in photography as an undergraduate at Yale and was instantly enthralled. After earning a Masters of Fine Arts in photography from the University of Florida, Taylor started creating her still life collages. Today, using her point-and-click camera, flatbed scanners, and Adobe Photoshop software, she creates collaged digital artwork that transports viewers into dreamlike worlds inhabited by everyday objects. Her fabricated photography has been featured alongside that of her husband’s — renowned photographer Jerry Uelsmann — in a variety of exhibitions around the world. Here, Taylor shares her insights about how she landed upon her unique style of digital artistry.
Photoshop.com: Tell us about your early process creating photographic collages.
Maggie Taylor: I’ve always used a menagerie of found objects, photos I take on my own, and old photos of people. In the 1980s, I liked to set up an entire collage in front of the camera beginning with an old family snapshot that had sentimental value to me. In the 1990s, I set up my 4 x 5 inch view camera outside and played with objects, light, and shadows. Sometimes I would shoot all afternoon and use tons of film. Later, I’d realize I should have positioned something differently or there would be a shadow I didn’t want. I would have to start again, and it was often frustrating and expensive.
Photoshop.com: Is that what led you to start working digitally?
Maggie Taylor: My growing frustration with that method of working actually kind of coincided with Adobe sending a "digital evangelist" to our house to set up a computer for my husband because they wanted him to try creating some images using Photoshop. But instead of Jerry falling in love with the software, I did. Right away I started scanning objects in order to have some imagery to work with quickly to explore the different tools and options. All sorts of small 3-dimensional things fit on my flatbed scanner with the top ajar. Today, I have flat-file drawers, walls, and shelves full of old photographs and found artifacts.
Photoshop.com: Where do all of your photographs and found artifacts come from?
Maggie Taylor: I collect quirky 19th-century photographs and odds and ends at antique shops and flea markets and sometime on the Internet. Then I use a flatbed scanner to digitally capture all of these small items. I once even scanned my live goldfish. Don't worry! He went right back into the tank and was fine. I collect anything with a sense of history or a certain patina, from bird eggs to old dolls and miniature furniture. Essentially, I take found objects and old black-and-white photographs and recycle or reinvent them, letting them evoke a visually rich story.
Photoshop.com: What role does Photoshop play in your artistic process and what features do you most use for your images?
Maggie Taylor: The many layering possibilities in Photoshop keep me very busy. I can end up with 100 or more layers in an average image, and I love the ability to change Blend Modes and turn layers on and off. When I am experimenting with ideas for a new image, I need to keep all my options open. I like to transform things into Smart Objects because I’m constantly changing my mind on how big something should be. In addition to scale changes, warping allows me to make subtle adjustments that can change the perspective on an object a little bit — making it just right. I’m now using Photoshop CS6, and I love the new interface because I prefer working against a dark and less distracting background. I also find it incredibly helpful to be able to search for a particular layer using its name or other attribute.
Photoshop.com: How would you describe your style?
Maggie Taylor: I am interested in creating a cohesive, visual, believable space that the viewer can visually enter. So, I do not use a lot of transparency or create a space that is too visually complex. Ideally, I want the images to invite the viewer to engage and recollect, almost like entering a stage set or a scene from a dream. The color palette of my work is something that has stayed remarkably similar from my earliest color photographs right up to recent digital work. I do not know exactly why that happens, but I know we each have individual color preferences or palettes that we gravitate toward.
Photoshop.com: Can you tell us about your process from idea to final image?
Maggie Taylor: When I begin working on a new image, I don’t have an endpoint in mind and I try to stay open to accidental discoveries. It can be a little daunting at first, so I often start by scanning and retouching just to get the feel of an image. Some days it seems like nothing is that exciting, and nothing is working visually. I try adding a number of different objects or backgrounds until something resonates or sparks an idea. Then, when I have a direction in mind, I work away for days and even weeks refining and editing. That is the fun part — once I know I’m working on something I like. Eventually, before making a proof print, I go through hundreds of layers in Photoshop, turning them on and off to see what’s absolutely necessary or what needs help. Mostly, I use the basic masks, layers, and blend modes to put things together. I love that feeling of coming up with something new, something I like, but it’s also exciting knowing that everything is still totally malleable.
Photoshop.com: So how many layers does a typical image for you include?
Maggie Taylor: Lately, every image easily comprises more than 100 layers, so it’s very time-consuming. I might work on an image for three to four days in the initial experimentation stage when I am constantly adding new layers and trying new things. On average, I only make about ten to twelve images a year, working on one image roughly every three weeks or so. At times I work on two or three images simultaneously. Some images can include 300 to 400 layers because so many objects and photos are involved.
The burden of dreams, completed at the end of 2012, has about 255 layers. Each item coming out of the man's head is its own layer, with corresponding adjustment layers for color, curves, and a shadow on the lower objects in the group. Also, the man's clothing has hue and saturation adjustment layers for the various parts of the fabric. His hair has a number of layers I drew to enhance his hairline and eyebrows. The clouds are in several groups as well. Several objects are saved as Smart Objects, so if you were to open all those layers there are probably another 30 to 40 layers hidden in them. The snake is a particularly complex group, with a scan of a plastic toy snake as well as a scan of an antique book illustration of a snake. The white rabbit also has many layers involved, with some drawings, some hair added, and a touch of color for the eye, ear, and nose. I worked on this image on and off for more than four months until I was finally happy with it.
Photoshop.com: With so many wonderful pieces, do you have any favorites?
Maggie Taylor: Most of the people in my images are from the 19th century, however the image in Small celebration is an early 20th-century image of a woman in a bathing costume, posing in front of a blanket. When I first saw this image I loved her striped bathing suit, and I also thought she looked a little like me. After removing her rather dull background, I placed her in a number of different settings and finally settled on the idea that she would be wading out in water.
I love to photograph water, particularly when visiting Yosemite in the summer. The water in this image is a composition of four different snapshots I took while traveling, and each one has a layer mask and a different blend mode. I wanted the foreground water to be a bit transparent, and then become more sparkly and moonlit in the distance. The farthest section of the water and the trees are from a picture I took of a lake in Austria. The clouds are from a photo of a beach in Florida. And the moon is from an old stereo view cabinet card.
In the original image of the woman there is no hat, but I thought it would complete her costume to have some coordinating striped pseudo bathing cap. Many things about the woman have actually been changed or enhanced, including both of her hands, which came from other photos. The magic sparkles are simply drawn on a blank layer and enhanced with a few radial blurs on portions of the sparks.
Photoshop.com: What’s next for you? Are there any new ideas you are working on or experimenting with?
Maggie Taylor: In January 2013 I published a book, No Ordinary Days, which includes 120 of my images from 1998 to 2012. The book has wonderful color and design details that I am really happy with. Meanwhile, I am continuing to make new images that are very much in the same style. Occasionally, when I have been working on a lot of images with people in them, I turn to working on a landscape or still life just for a visual change. I also recently had a couple of my images printed on the 60-inch wide Epson printer for a museum exhibition. The large scale gave me a new way of looking at my work. The detail is amazing, and the scale really invites you into the space as a participant.